Putin’s influence over Interpol is about to get a lot stronger – here’s what that means for the EU

Kamran Bokhari
Interpol is being used at the sharp end of Russian expansionism in the Balkans: AP

At this week’s Interpol general assembly in Dubai, Major-General Alexander Prokopchuk is likely to be the new head of Interpol. For context, Prokopchuk was head of Russia’s Interpol bureau and an indispensable ally in Vladimir Putin’s manipulation and abuse of what claims to be a neutral, apolitical international organisation.

But as the Kremlin tramples on any pretence of the agency’s neutrality, how will the west (and especially Europe) respond – and protect its citizens from the wrath of Putin’s new global police force, headed by a loyal general?

Part of the problem lies in how easily Interpol’s processes are open to abuse. Their so-called “international arrest warrants”, or red notices, are relatively easy to issue, and mean that any of Interpol’s 192 members are likely to arrest an individual. There is no hearing by a third-party judge, and almost no oversight: Interpol itself acknowledges that approximately 97 per cent of notice requests are not reviewed in depth.

Russia has found the holes in the system and used them to its advantage, with the victims ranging from dissidents, politicians and businessmen.

The most recent victim is businessman and chair of Hungarian energy group MOL who had an Interpol arrest warrant issued against him two days ago on bribery charges, despite already being exonerated of those same charges by the UN’s most senior trade arbitration court in 2017.

US investor and Putin critic Bill Browder was in a hotel room in Madrid when he was arrested by Spanish police who declared the cause of arrest to be “Interpol–Russia”.

And a US citizen residing in Copenhagen was detained as a result of an Interpol red notice and held for almost two months in a maximum-security prison. He was never charged, as the investigation showed that it was his involvement with Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky that provoked the warrant.

But when it comes to how Putin is weaponising Interpol, it is in the European Union’s frontier Baltic and Balkan states where the most apparent and the consequences are.

Eerik-Niiles Kross, for example, is a leading pro-Nato Estonian politician who, as director of Estonian intelligence, defended Georgia against Russian attack. In response, Interpol issued a red notice for Kross on the eve of Estonian elections, where his IRL party were poised to make sizeable gains against Estonia’s Russia-aligned party.

Most worryingly, Interpol is being used at the sharp end of Russian expansionism in the strategically important Balkans region. With Putin keen to secure Russian control of the EU’s energy supply through Kremlin proxies Rosneft and Gazprom, Interpol has, under the watchful eye of Gen Prokopchuk, used red notices to shift geopolitical currents and attack Europe’s energy security.

For instance, after Hungarian company MOL beat Russian competitors to an investment in Croatia’s biggest energy company (INA) in 2009, Russia has since supported an attempt by the Croatian government to reverse that agreement, with the Russian ambassador in Zagreb going so far as to say, “Russia can do more for Croatia than the US and EU put together”. A powerful Russian energy presence in central Europe would have dire consequences for the region and the EU.

What is particularly perturbing is how Interpol seems to have been weaponised as part of this geopolitical power play. Perhaps not coincidentally, the chair of Hungarian energy group MOL, Zsolt Hernadi, was issued an Interpol red notice on bribery charges back in 2013. But he was then removed from the Interpol red list in 2016 in what appeared to be an exoneration of his name. And then in 2017, all corruption allegations against him were dismissed altogether by the UN’s arbitration commission, UNCITRAL.

But, just this week, Hernadi has put back on the Interpol red list again – on exactly the same charges the agency seems to have dropped against him in 2016 and that he was acquitted of by the UN’s highest trade law authority. The contradictions in this case matter. Russia’s ability to acquire a stake in Croatia’s biggest energy company and a foothold in central Europe depends upon it. And the politicisation of Interpol is being used as a necessary tool in that fight.

Clearly, from energy deals to electoral campaigns, the abuse of Interpol’s red notice system has had, and is expected to continue to have, dire geopolitical consequences.

But of Interpol’s 192 members, 14 democracies account for 74 per cent of the body’s funding. Unless they use that financial leverage to change the body’s archaic processes, they should consider ceasing or limiting cooperation with what is a severely compromised institution. If they don’t, Europe will end up paying a much bigger price.

Dr Kamran Bokhari teaches courses on national security and foreign policy to Canadian military, intelligence and security officials at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of ‘Political Islam in the Age of Democratisation’